Lighting: The Bad and the Good

In last month's column, I discussed "bad" lighting using a number of examples selected from TV spots for the candidates during the New Hampshire primary campaign. As I noted in the column, much of this lighting was done under "run-and-gun" conditions, so it was easy to find examples.

This month, I felt I should cover "good" lighting produced under similar circumstances. As it turned out, finding decent lighting was not as straightforward as finding the flawed. I spent some time searching for examples but with no real success—there was very little to choose from. However, I did happen to watch President Obama's State of the Union address and was impressed with the very clean lighting, a "good" lighting job. It occurred to me that it would be helpful to review a few of the numerous considerations that go into making television lighting "good" for such events.

I have no personal knowledge of how the House of Representatives was actually lighted during the speech and this absence is really not important as the working circumstances are nearly identical on any such "High-Visibility Large-Viewing Audience Event." The more persistent situations are always present.


One important common issue is the manner in which the onsite audience is going to be handled. In the majority of instances, the size of the television audience will be many times the size of the real audience attending the event, and it is justifiable to accept that all aspects of the TV coverage will take precedence.

President Obama's State of the Union address on television is an example of a "good" lighting job. The live audience is usually to be seen as well as heard and is an important element of the production, however, this never seems to eliminate the need for a discussion about audience comfort. The audience must be properly lighted to be seen; as a result, the audience will suffer a great deal of glare and possibly heat (especially during tight reaction shots). Luckily, people who are prominent are used to the discomfort of the lighting and a show-biz audience will expect it. The close shots of individual members of the audience are always shot from the viewpoint of the principal subject, and that's where the light will come from, directly in their eyes. The order of magnitude of the audience lighting is necessary to be the same as the lighting for the major subject, although even the most miniscule amount will cause glare. This condition is exemplified by the coverage of the State of the Union event.


Besides the VIP section close to the podium, there might also be a second, more remote VIP section that will have to receive exposure level. In the case of the State of the Union address, the other VIP section contains the First Lady and special guests in the balcony. There may be a temptation to light the whole balcony; usually, this is a luxury that time, effort and questionable improvement cannot justify.

One useful trick is to cross light the audience towards the rear of the non-VIP area which is needed as a background. This decreases the glare audience members experience but, more importantly, makes them appear to recede and makes the overall audience seem larger. Additionally, in many instances it is desirable to light the audience from the rear (reverse of their front light from podium) in order to add some foreground to a wide shot from the main camera direction. Again, the President's speech did have some of this lighting approach and it added greatly to the success of the high wide shot from the balcony towards the President.


So that you don't suffer sleepless nights, it is always a good idea to do some very basic lighting calculations to confirm that the audience-lighting level is consistent with your exposure level of the main subject. This was outlined in a previous column, "Lumens for Humans–Part II," (Nov. 9, 2009).

Coupled with the need for lighting the audience is the desirability of lighting the room, the architecture, to establish the actual environment of the event. This can, in terms of equipment required, result in the audience lighting consuming more of the equipment resources than the primary production area of the event. The more practical way is to prioritize the venue's elements that have the most effect on the main camera views and light them. A typical first choice would be the wall surfaces framing the podium.


By far, the most primary concern in the lighting design is the lighting of the main subject—in our case, the President. Most of the program, maybe 90 percent, will consist of a shot of him with the majority of these being a close shot directly on the centerline. The exposure level, the intensity of the lighting, will all be referenced to this basic shot of the podium. The character of this lighting of the main subject must approach portrait quality and be as flattering as possible—no matter what the director of the camera coverage may dream up (in the misconception that variety is needed).

The first and always difficult hurdle is finding proper mounting positions for the main-light fill and perhaps cross light. The most convenient locations are sure to be at too steep an angle or at a correct angle with too long a throw. It is very unusual in a finished space such as the House of Representatives to find the perfect location, or to fantasize that you can suspend a truss 35 feet from the podium at an elevation of 20 feet with two 10K fresnels, a regular and emergency. For sure, the proper angle would require a long throw instrument—there are not too many practical choices. A follow-spot is definitely out for cosmetic as well as space constraints although it would work fine. This leaves PAR instruments or narrow-angle theatrical ellipsoidal fixtures (don't forget the Hamburg Frost). To keep things simple at this time, I will not even visit the subject of being able to reach the equipment to focus—or the pain experienced in attempting a slight re-focus adjustment.

The one benefit I want to emphasize in connection with this introduction to lighting the "High-Visibility Large-Viewing Audience Event" is the great feeling of gratification that you will experience with a successful result. I wish you all good luck in achieving this euphoria.

Bill Klages would like to extend an invitation to all the lighting people out there to give him your thoughts at